How is Canada at a point where there is no record of one in five of the international students with study permits studying at college or university here, with the no show rate over 90% at some private colleges? How do we get out of this mess, which is creating divisions domestically and damaging Canada’s reputation as a quality education destination?
The cluster of policy failures at play is unusual, but mismanagement of international student visas is not unique. There is precedent: Australia faced major challenges in 2008-10 arising from unmanaged growth in student numbers from India. Ironically, Canada’s then approach to promoting education in India was seen by Australia as a “best practice” as they sought a way out of their crisis, which played out spectacularly in media and politics.
The essential problem was familiar: the unintended consequence of policies that drove huge numbers of students to Australia whose primary interest was less getting an education than working and finding a path to permanent residency less daunting than the formal PR process.
From 2004 to 2009, Indian student numbers in Australia surged from 30,000 to 97,000, with something like 50,000 of them in Melbourne alone. Dubious private colleges played a big role. Many worked long hours, and in circumstances that left them vulnerable. When attacks, some very serious, on Indian students were portrayed by the supercharged Indian media as being the result of Australian “racism” (the reality was more complex, but still troubling), the situation became a public relations mess for Australia and a major irritant. Australian diplomats, ministers and officials were seized with managing the crisis and finding a way forward. It threatened a rapidly growing (and significant) bilateral relationship, so resolution was a priority. Getting through it required engagement at the state and national levels in Australia, including calls between the PMs and, ultimately, a visit to India by then PM Rudd.
I had a front row seat to the crisis and the response. I was managing Canada’s trade and investment program in India, which included education promotion, and my wife was at the Australian mission in Delhi, looking after their political and economic program.
India had become a priority market for Canada, and we were under pressure to significantly grow the number of students. Often, the push was to be “more like the Australians”, whose overall student numbers were exploding, while ours showed more restrained (albeit real) growth. There was clear potential, but we understood the pitfalls that a race for numbers would entail. Indeed, both we at the Canadian High Commission and at least some of the Australian team in Delhi were aware of the quality issues underlying the astronomical growth in numbers heading to Australia from India well before the issue exploded.
As it happened, the Canadian mission in Delhi was able to substantially increase the flow of serious students to Canada, even if the numbers were less spectacular than some in Canada wanted. Thanks to the thoughtful and collaborative management of the Canadian immigration team in Delhi, we aligned our promotion and visa processing to support established degree granting institutions, which essentially meant publicly funded ones. This was a virtuous circle, as reputable institutions understood the need to safeguard their reputations by minimizing the number of problematic applicants and provided data to confirm their students were legitimate. The approach was adopted at some other Canadian missions as a best practice for processing of student visas.
This approach was noticed: Australian officials who came to Delhi to assess their program and learn lessons from their debacle came to speak with us. Indeed, I continued to hear about how Canada’s quality driven approach was a best practice for many in Canberra after I was posted there in late 2009, while the student issue with India was still playing out.
As it happened, the importance with which the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) treated the issue was reflected in a small way in my wife’s assignment upon return to Canberra in 2009. After being on front lines of the file in Delhi, she was assigned as a director in the public diplomacy area at DFAT HQ with the task of coordinating efforts to rebuild Australia’s image in India, something less likely to happen in the more free-range Canadian system.
What lessons are there for Canada from the Australian experience? First, negative unintended consequences of policy decisions must be recognized, and course changed promptly. Second, we have the expertise and experience to address difficult problems, but we need to listen to it. This requires honest, thoughtful, and proactive leadership at both federal and provincial levels, complemented by an experienced and expert public service. Central to this is serious reflection on what has gone wrong and the fact that issues of national significance are at stake, including social cohesion in Canada and our reputation abroad. Learning lessons from others is also relevant. Continued support for substantial immigration in Canada requires citizens to have confidence the authorities have control over who gets into the country. That confidence is at serious risk and must be addressed quickly.
Honesty about what has gone wrong and what is at stake for Canada, and learning from our experience and that of others, will go a long way to finding a solution.
Publicly funded universities and colleges in Canada, and the quality private institutions, need to keep pressure on the implicated layers of government to fix this without delay given the reputational damage being done. I hope they are reaching out to Australian counterparts as established universities in Australia pushed the government hard to take effective action during their own crisis, including closing down substandard education institutions that were complicit in what was essentially a back door immigration scheme.
There is a way out of this mess. Business as usual will not do it. Honesty about what has gone wrong and what is at stake for Canada, and learning from our experience and that of others, will go a long way to finding a solution.
A modified version of this post appeared in the Globe and Mail on 26 January 2024.